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Sex tourism

Dubious reputation

by Katja Dombrowski

In depth

Cambodian sex workers wait for customers at  a public park  in Phnom Penh.

Cambodian sex workers wait for customers at a public park in Phnom Penh.

The number of tourists in Cambodia has doubled over the past four years. In 2014, more than 4 million foreigners visited the Southeast Asian country, attracted by the temples of Angkor, tropical beaches – and some of them by cheap and readily available prostitutes.

The latest trend seems to be sexual abuse of children in Cambodian orphanages. Male perpetrators, in the guise of tourists or volunteers, get easy access to underage girls and boys. Several cases of this sort were uncovered in the past years. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) stated in a report released in February it was concerned about “orphanage tourism, which seems to be a growing phenomenon where children in institutions and orphanages are being exposed to sexual exploitation by foreigners” in Cambodia (see box).

Cambodia has long been a destination for male sex tourists from Asia and western countries. Prostitution, although prohibited by law, is rampant all over the country and especially visible at the touristic hotspots. Whether in Siem Reap, the gateway to the famous temples of Angkor, in the capital Phnom Penh or the resort town of Sihanoukville, girls are readily available. They work in karaoke bars, massage salons and on the streets.

The newspaper Cambodia Daily quoted tourism minister Thong Khon as saying that there are 659 adult entertainment venues across the country employing more than 11,000 workers. Not all of them are sex workers, of course. More than one in four establishments are unlicensed, according to the report, so the government does not regulate them. The statistics do not inspire confidence.

Most prostitutes come from the poor Cambodian countryside, but some are from neighbouring countries like Vietnam. Prostitution in Cambodia is cheap. It is said that women sell themselves for as little as five dollars. Western tourists, though, are more likely to pay at least $ 20 to $ 30. The prices are considerably lower than in Thailand, Cambodia’s neighbour and one of the world’s most notorious sex tourism destinations. Cheap and easy access to prostitutes is one of the reasons why the industry is on the rise in Cambodia. “While the majority of those who pay for sex in Cambodia are Cambodians”, the country’s sex tourism industry is expanding, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) pointed out in a study on transnational organised crime in east Asia and the Pacific in 2013.

One in three prostitutes is under 18

Both sex tourists and local men demand underage girls and boys. According to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2014, “Cambo­dian men form the largest source of demand for child prostitution; however, men from other Asian countries, the United States, and Europe travel to Cambodia to engage in child sex tourism“.

The UN’s children’s rights committee estimates that one third of prostitutes in Cambodia is under 18 years old. Human trafficking is a big problem. UNICEF states that some 37 % of the victims trafficked for sexual exploitation in Cambodia are children. The US State Department, however, reports that some children engage in prostitution without third party involvement. They are driven by the need to survive.

The country has the dubious reputation of being a heaven for paedophiles. It is enough to ask a tuk tuk driver, guest house owner or waiter for a little girl or boy. Even some desperate parents sell their daughters’ virginity. The State Department authors acknowledge: “The sale of virgin women and girls continues to be a problem in Cambodia.“

Cambodia’s Trafficking in Persons Law provides penalties ranging from two to 15 years in prison for commercial sexual exploitation of children. The law also prohibits child pornography. However, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) bemoan weak law enforcement and rampant corruption. Activists say that the police and other government agencies benefit from the illicit business they are supposed to eradicate.

The situation has been improving over the years. Nowadays trials take place and convictions occur. National and international media report such cases. According to data compiled by Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), a Cambodian NGO, 115 foreigners were convicted of child sex crimes between 2003 and 2014.

A recent case concerned a British man who was sentenced to seven years in prison in February. He was found guilty of sexually abusing four boys under 15 at a café he owned in the city of Battambang. When this essay was finalised in early March, on­going trials concerned a British tourist accused of sexually abusing four girls between the ages of seven and 11 in Phnom Penh and an American teacher at a private school in the capital. He is accused of abusing four impoverished Cambodian boys aged between five and 11.

Last year, the Labour Ministry announced new regulations aimed at protecting sex workers and other staff at entertainment venues. According to Cambodia Daily, Minister Ith Sam Heng has promised new rules that will cover working conditions, safety, health and access to HIV services. The paper quoted the minister saying that employees in the “thriving” sector were to get legal protection for the first time. Initially, adherence to the regulations will be voluntary. However, the government plans to introduce fines, the newspaper reported.

More boy victims than girls

Many of the children in the sex business are street children and thus vulnerable in all respects. Several local NGOs offer support. APLE has been working since 2003 “to protect children, identify and counter the sexual abuse and exploitation of children with a focus on traveling sex offenders”, according to its website. The organisation has established a hotline that allows anybody to report abuse anonymously. It also gives social and legal aid to victims and raises public awareness for the issue.

APLE reports that it deals with more boy victims than girls. The reason is that this agency focuses on street-based exploitation, which mostly affects boys. Foreign sex offenders actively look for boys, according to APLE. Girls, on the other hand, are said to be more likely to become “victims of establishment-based abuse and situational offenders”.

The civil-society network ECPAT Cambodia (End Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking in Cambodia) unites 26 NGOs and was established in 1995. ECPAT regularly conducts workshops to raise awareness of sexual exploitation of children in the tourism industry. The latest event, organised in January in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism, was attended by representatives of 28 private-sector companies from the tourism sector. ECPAT encourages hotels and other operators in the sector to establish a code of conduct to protect children.

Most Cambodians are deeply ashamed of their country’s image as a sex tourism destination. That will only change, however, if all sides work together.

Katja Dombrowski is a member of the D+C/E+Z’s editorial team. She lived in Cambodia from 2004 to 2007.


Transnational organized crime in East Asia and the Pacific.
U.S. Department of State: Trafficking in Persons Report 2014.

Comments (2)

We need to address poverty first #

Unfortunately, this problem won't be solved without first solving the underlying problems of poverty and standards of living. As the US justice department acknowledges many of these cases are driven by the need to survive and it's the health of the children that concerns me more. If international pressure convinces the Cambodian government to seriously crack down on prostitution as things are right now it will mean more of the people's money will be used for that which means even more of the poverty that caused the problem to begin with. If such a crack down really does end prostitution it will be because the victims died of starvation instead. This is by no means an argument in favor of prostitution. It's still exploitation of a vulnerable population, regardless of the age of the sex worker, its just that the problem of children literally dying of hunger seems like a much larger problem.

I read their report to the UN and it seems like they have been starting t step up enforcement, but as I feared it has been well rounded focusing on all issues equally. What good does it do to arrest a guy walking up to a sex worker if she needs to work to eat that night? In the end the exploitation will still occur. If they stop all persons from ever walking up to her and never give her another job she will die and, sadly, the world won't care about that nearly as much as they care who she has sex with. Instead they should focus entirely on the human trafficking aspect since that's the group most likely to benefit from a crack down. Police corruption go hand in hand with this as well.

If we, as a global community, actually want to see this problem end we should establish a global fund for solving underlying economic problems. We in the western world may not be too affected, but there is a global food shortage so if we can just solve that one problem - if we can just make sure there is enough healthy food for everyone - I believe social issues of exploitation can be solved next. Until then though, or until we at least make a token effort to improve the lives of victims even a little, there's nothing we or their government can do that will be enough to stop it.

Sorry for being a bit long winded about this, but too often I see people neglecting to mention how important the underlying issues are to the overlying problem, and very few people even want to acknowledge what is really at stake.

Not just poverty. #


I don't disagree with you about the poverty but this could be greatly alleviated if the Kleptocrats could be dealt with first. To give you some idea of how venal these people are, the UK gov donated £5 million's worth of Mosquito Nets. High ranking Cambodian officers met with the donors and asked for a 15% customs duty before they would accept the gift. The UK refused to pay and threatened to withdraw the gift. The Cam officials relented and the goods were landed. They were then immediately sold to neighbouring Burma and the assumption is that the corrupt gov officials pocketed the money.

Hun Sen has a salary of $1,100 per month and yet has managed to accumulate an estimated fortune of $300 million in a country where most people are living on $3 a day. Take at look at Lexus ownership and you will will several thousand cars costing the equivalent of 50 years wages to the average Khmer, and great big chunks of this are funded by foreign aid, particularly from the EU and US.

The NGO's that are reported to be combating paedophiles are on the whole a scam, which are funded by naive foreign donors who do not realise that the people running them are enjoying the holiday of their lives, driving around in 4x4's with their Khmer g/f's. There is no doubt that there is a paedo tourist problem. but there is an even greater problem with local peados who account for 98% of the abusers. In recent years typically there have been in the region of 12-20 prosecutions of foreign paedos, and in just about every case, every NGO claims that they were the people who helped bring this man to justice. If you think about it, if they were all involved, the perpetrator was to dumb to realise that he had 20 people following him. The reality is that the only time that a foreign paedo was ever prosecuted, was when the police could not extort sufficient money from him after he was dumb enough to do his business away from a kiddie brothel. Most foreign paedos are not caught by these NGO's but as a result of suspicious Hotel Staff contacting the police. And though the problem is 98% local paedos, the NGO's never manage to alert the police to local paedos.

Mention is made of fact that you can ask any TutTuk driver, waiter etc, if you are looking to molest a child and they will soon deliver for you. Simple question: If every TukTuk driver in PP knows where to take you to find children to abuse, then why don't the Police know? More to the point, how is it that the NGO's can never find these places? The answer is quite simple. They do know, but most of these places are either owned by the police/gov/military, or paying protection to them. If they start to report on these they will very quickly find that their holiday of a lifetime is brought to an abrupt end when they are deported.

There are one or two "pro-active" NGO's but they are also known to use questionable methods such as "honey traps". These require that they get under-age girls who can pass for 18+ to entrap unsuspecting victims. Follow him to the hotel and then call the police. What is the real difference between this and a "Murphy Game". If you are unfamiliar with the term, it involves a prostitute luring a client to be robbed or blackmailed by an accomplice.

Contrary to your suggestion about setting up a fund to deal with it, I would propose cutting all foreign aid to the country until this problem is solved. Hun Sen loves to get his snout in the trough which is the main source of his wealth. Don't fill that trough and then see how quickly he takes action. Notwithstanding his Kleptocracy, most Khmers that I know would welcome this in exactly the same way that black S. Africans welcomed sanctions which eventually led to the end of apartheid.